DENVER – Travelers trying to get home after Thanksgiving were stranded across the Plains on Monday as the region's first big snowstorm of the season closed hundreds of miles of highways, cutting visibility to zero and piling up drifts 6 feet high.
Snow driven by wind up to 69 mph fell from North Dakota to the Texas Panhandle, shutting down schools, post offices and South Dakota state government.
Four deaths were blamed on slippery roads in South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, and a fifth person was killed when tornado picked up and hurled a car in Arkansas.
"It's not safe for anybody," said Sharon Rouse, owner of a towing service at Kearney, Neb.
Eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 were closed for nearly 350 miles from Denver across the Plains to Russell, Kan. Westbound lanes were reopened in some areas.
"We're just waiting," said Corey Dagner, who was stuck in Limon, Colo., on his way home to Illinois after attending a wedding at the Breckenridge ski resort. "Nobody's sure what's going on and what time they're going to open the interstate."
Denver International Airport was spared, and had an estimated 158,000 travelers Sunday, one of the busiest travel days of the year. "We had some wind, that's it," said airport spokesman Chuck Cannon.
Motels in Limon, 70 miles east of Denver, filled up quickly Sunday night. About 50 people who could not find or afford a room took refuge at First Baptist Church, sleeping on pews or in classrooms. Most left Monday morning in search of another route home.
"We're just a place where people get stranded in storms," pastor Rick Taylor said. It happens two or three times a year, he said.
The Colorado portion of I-70 was dry Monday, but the highway was impassable in western and central Kansas because visibility was nearly zero. Colorado halted eastbound traffic because there are so few places to stop and wait on the state's sparsely populated eastern plains.
Almost 1,000 people spent Sunday night in shelters along I-70, said Joy Moser, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. Even though the blizzard warning for northwest and north-central Kansas expired Monday afternoon, shelters remained open in anticipation of more stranded travelers.
"You can't even see," said Bill Kanitig of the Sherman County, Kan., sheriff's office. "The highway is snowpacked, and it's slick and everybody's sliding off."
Numerous other highways also were closed across the Plains, including a 175-mile stretch of I-90 across South Dakota, and a 60-mile stretch of I-80 in Nebraska.
"This is probably the worst storm I've ever encountered," Terri Gosney said by telephone from a truck stop alongside I-90 in Mitchell, S.D., as she waited to resume her trip home to Minong, Wis.
Wind, snow and ice in South Dakota snapped electrical lines — coating some cables with ice a few inches thick — and knocked out power to much of the eastern part of the state, and it wasn't expected to be restored until at least Tuesday, Gov. Mike Rounds said.
"For a lot of people in eastern South Dakota, this is going to be one of those days where it's going to be very, very, cold before the heat gets turned back on," Rounds said.
Minnesota Department of Public Safety spokesman Kevin Smith said that despite the efforts to sand the major roads in northwestern parts of the state, "the wind is polishing the roads to glaze in about 20 minutes."
The same storm whipped up tornadoes that destroyed at least eight homes in Arkansas on Sunday and damaged more than 30 homes at Fort Riley, Kan.
Grass fires driven by the storm system's wind blackened thousands of acres in Texas and Oklahoma. Several homes were destroyed in the two states and hundreds of families had to evacuate in Oklahoma.